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Our History: Central Park to celebrate 150th anniversary

Central Park holds many memories for me, for I was born in Manhattan and have lived most of my life in New York City’s environs. I remember especially the thrill of a ride on the park’s beautiful merry-go-round, the colorful vendors’ balloons, the excitement of finding the prize in a package of Cracker Jacks, the antics of the seals, the thrill of watching the tigers and lions, the humorous pranks of the monkeys and the repulsion of viewing the snakes.

This year Central Park will celebrate its 150th anniversary. It is hard to believe that this beautiful park, consisting of 843 landscaped, scenic acres set in the heart of Manhattan, was entirely man-made.

In the initial 20 years of construction, 10 million carloads of dirt was shifted, 4 million to 5 million trees of 632 species and 815 varieties of vines, alpine plants and hardy perennials were planted, and half a million cubic yards of topsoil was spread over the existing poor soil. Sixty two miles of ceramic pipe was laid to drain marshy areas and to supply water to lawns.

The crusade for a public park started in 1844 when William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Post, observed how much of Manhattan was being devoured by commerce and becoming increasingly overpopulated. (Bryant became a resident of rural Roslyn, Long Island after he left Massachusetts, where he was born.)

He was a friend of Andrew Jackson Downey, a prominent landscape designer who added his voice to the campaign, as did a number of politicians. One of those politicians was Andrew Green, known for his work to unite our boroughs into the city of New York.

In 1856 the city bought most of what is now the park, which it deemed “unsuitable for public development.” The cost was $5 million dollars. The area purchased was desolate and covered with the shanties of squatters, roaming pigs and goats, a garbage dump and an old bone-boiling works.

The job of surveying and clearing the park area was given to Egbert Viele, who was assisted by the police in displacing the nearly 1,000 squatters, mostly German and Irish farmers and gardeners.

There was also a substantial African-American settlement called Seneca Village, which gave way to the extension of the park to 110th Street in 1863 — bringing it to its current 843 acres.

The question of control of the park led to political maneuvering. The Republicans dominated the state legislature and eventually won their points over the locals, who were mainly Democrats. The park was a new form of public institution in the United States.

The first Central Park Commission was established in 1857 and lasted until 1870. Under the leadership of Andrew Green, the commission became the city’s first planning agency. In addition to the park, it oversaw the laying out of Uptown Manhattan.

The man who was to be chosen to oversee the park project was to have been Downey; however, he drowned in a tragedy that destroyed the Hudson River steamboat the Henry Clay. His partner, Calvert Vaux, was working in New York City in 1858 when the board of the Park Commission arranged for a design competition. He joined with the little-known Frederick Olmstead to submit a plan that eventually won.

Olmstead eventually became superintendent of the park. Their plan, called “Greensward,” was the winner. Vaux was much chagrined when Olmstead, untrained as he was, was named architect-in-chief, while Vaux became the consulting architect.

Their work continued from 1858 to 1878. Vaux was born in London, and both men’s work on the park reflected the influence of English landscape gardeners of the time.

The social aim of the park was to demonstrate an experiment in democracy: providing the working class an escape from the confinement of tenements and sweatshops, as well as allowing the wealthy to showcase in their fashionable promenades their horses and wealth.

Today, and since the period of Robert Moses, the more pastoral beauty of the park is joined by an environment that takes into account active sports and recreation. In the past, more modern buildings replaced the original vintage architecture of Olmstead and Vaux.

The park today attracts 13 million to 20 million visitors yearly. In 1980 the Central Park Conservancy launched a long-term project to improve and encourage respect for the park. Buildings have been redesigned to harmonize with the environment, lakes have been dredged, lawns resodded and gardens replanted.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, free-lance writer and member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee.

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